Friday, September 25, 2020

Leadership in uncertain policy environments: reflections for customer service in a changing Botswana

Today’s subject of discussion is transformational leadership. As the lead panellist has ably defined the subject matter, definitions need not delay us. ‘Transformational’ leadership is needed when there are problems with the status quo. There are many changing circumstances in Botswana; circumstances that we must cause to change in order to attain the very high aspirations we hold, as espoused in Vision 2016.

My attempt today is to go beyond the rhetoric of the innate characters of leaders but anchor my intervention on the material, ‘on the ground’ challenges facing leadership. Being at BIDPA for the last decade, I have had a privileged position; watching our society undergo momentous transformations in its policy contexts. Unfortunately these rapid changes have not been matched in rapid response in changing the technology of leading our organisations.

The challenges our society face include slowing economic growth, poor test results for Mathematics and Science, an economy that is not diversifying fast enough, increasing levels of crime, rising social inequality, declining life expectancy and increasing poverty levels.

This is not a sustainable status quo, and it must change. Leaders must harness the policy resources we have as society. To serve our customers/citizens better, we must understand what ails our systems, which is why I take a broader look at the policy structures with regard to delivery of services.

Many changes have also occurred in our public service environment. The workforce too has changed…today’s employees are more learned in a formal sense than yesteryears’. Knowledge workers don’t want to be bossed around; they need to be nurtured properly to harness their value. They need to be treated with respect and empathy. While this might be the case, most workplaces remain undemocratic, rule-based environments which fail to harness the potential of their employees.

Another challenge for any would be transformative leader is that ours is an uncertain world. The economy is in recession; diamonds are NOT forever, and diversification is going slow. It follows that all those models of policymaking including bo-cost benefit analysis might not hold all the answers. Uncertainty means lack of predictability is now part and parcel of the leadership challenge.

One of the major public sector reforms, privatisation, brings changes to the social contract between the Republic and its citizens. Privatisation represents a shift from bureaucracies to markets, contracts. To date privatisation has been defined, albeit inadvertently (or mischievously?) as ‘divestiture’. This is erroneous as there are many privatisations. Ours is an economy that is deeply privatised already, but perhaps less by way of divestiture. By this definition we lose the essence of the complexity which has resulted from other forms of privatisation, complexities that have led to consequences that need to be managed. For example, using contracting as a form of privatisation; from office cleaning, IT management, and providing security are all commonly subcontracted.

Government of Botswana has certainly given up a direct role in many activities. What is of interest however is that there hasn’t been any concomitant growth in developing the knowledge and competencies by government in managing this new set of circumstances? The consequences of not mitigating these changes couldn’t be greater.

Our citizens heretofore accessing vital services by virtue of being citizens have now been transformed into ‘consumers’. They now have to deal, not with a government with which they have a social contract; rather ‘the market’ with which they have no social contract. ‘Consumer’ status also means bypassing national borders; buying cars from Japan and Malaysia, clothes and building materials from China thus negating the capacity of the Government of Botswana to protect them. While this is still a burgeoning set of circumstances, there is no turning back. Third party government is here to stay. We need transformative leadership to factor that in.

Transformational leadership also needs to interrogate, the growing circumstances of sharing public discretion by private actors, which has definitely lessened control of policy implementation by public officers. When we engage third party providers through contracts, vouchers, regulation, permit systems; responsibility is split between both private and public providers. In education for instances, Limkokwing, ABM, NIIT and Ba Isago do what the University of Botswana used to do; provide tertiary education, unheard of only 5 years ago. Yet these universities do not only teach; they spend tax money though they are private actors!

What might frustrate however is that government, does not have any meaningful control over these institutions. They account primarily to their boards of directors and shareholders. Government’s capacity to deliver services is compromised by this myriad of complex webs of organisations. How sufficient are our coping systems as a civil service?
Another issue is accountability loss.

Since responsibility is fragmented, so is accountability. Transformational leadership is faced with the challenge of transforming the concept of public accountability. Contracting, regulation, using vouchers, and other policy instruments has served to shift the locus of accountability from the public bureau to private businesses, NGOs, regulators, wholesalers and other actors. It is only reasonable that those who are paid to deliver those services but fail to do so are made answerable for those lapses. As we change from a primarily public sector based service provision approach to a third party one, let us recognise that we are losing some of the advantages associated with public bureaucracies. Cost overruns are now very common. Political protection, information asymmetries goal diversion and perverse fiscal windfalls for failure dilute accountability.

Rebuilding trust for efficient service delivery is needed as well.
Transformational leadership needs to build a public policy culture in which answerability is a part and parcel of delivery of services at all levels. Trust, of the un-codified, impersonal, often un-institutionalised variety questions the reliability of leaders. It is an important currency we have in changing contexts of service provision. I don’t claim to have made any research on this, but let us ponder the following. Do citizens fully trust the police? Are political party actions predictable? Do the three branches of government act in due deference and respect of each other? Will universities admit more students than agreed with the Ministry of Education? These and many other questions might give clues into the predictability of action by our institutions.

We also need to rethink our policy instruments. Regulation, contracting, taxation, vouchers and other instrumental approaches to governing are now being used to deliver customer service. Have we thought these out thoroughly enough? Any parent who takes their child to an English medium school producing future taxpayers, pays triple the taxation for education; through income tax, indirect through the English medium school as it passes the tax to them; and through VAT. Is this equitable? On contracting, the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Gaborone City Council and Daisy Loo have taught us that contracting is not self-executing. Government primarily uses the private sector for its major projects and many are late and out of budget. Regulation too needs rethink; can it be pro poor? Can it live with competition which encourages plurality when regulation sets rules that must be followed and manages entry?

The issue to ponder as transformational leaders is one of how, as we change from using public bureaucracies and lose predictability we have perhaps taken our eye off the ball off designing of picking the right mechanisms for governance.

*This is the full paper meant to be presented at the Annual Civil Service Convention. The views expressed in the paper are those of the author and not of BIDPA or Office of the President, the Convention hosts.

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